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Leader Faces Pent-Up Anger Across Nigeria

By Dulue Mbachu, The Washington Post, Sunday 10 February 2002; Page A20

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Almost three years into his four-year term, President Olusegun Obasanjo refuses to say whether he will run for reelection. I am leaving the decision to God, he recently told a group of supporters at the presidential palace.

To many Nigerians, his reticence is not surprising. With the expectations that accompanied Obasanjo's election and the end of military rule in 1999 now largely unmet, impatience is building in Africa's most populous country. Lately, pent-up frustrations have flared into violence, claiming scores of lives and putting Obasanjo's rule to the test.

More than 100 people were killed in ethnic and religious violence that began last weekend in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital. What started as a minor dispute in one of the many slums in this city of 13 million escalated into three days of battles between the largest of Nigeria's 250 ethnic groups -- Hausa-speaking Muslim northerners and ethnic Yoruba Christians of the southwest.

Obasanjo told political leaders last week that such violence erodes the legitimacy of the state and its leaders, leaving democracy to stand alone and exposed to those who want to subvert it further or destroy it altogether.

With just a year remaining before Nigeria attempts its first transfer of power from elected leader to elected leader, Obasanjo said, There is no Nigerian who is not profoundly worried over the social environment that will be generated by the 2003 elections.

This month's riots were only the latest in a series of events that laid bare the magnitude of the challenges facing Obasanjo. On Jan. 27, the armory at a military base in Lagos went up in flames, setting off massive explosions that flattened the surrounding neighborhood. More than 1,000 people died, most of them women and children who drowned in a drainage canal while fleeing for their lives.

Five days later, policemen went on strike, demanding back pay and improved working conditions. The strike collapsed after the government threatened to call out troops for police duties and jailed the suspected leaders of the walkout, but not before violence erupted in Lagos.

Throughout the tumultuous weeks, Nigerians directed more anger than blame at Obasanjo and his government. But in a country ruled by the military for all but 12 years since independence from Britain in 1960, many wonder how long things can continue this way before the soldiers are tempted to return.

It may not be far-fetched to say that the recent pattern of events may be the work of elements in the polity preparing grounds for military intervention, said Ade Mayowa, a university teacher. All the justifications the military have used in the past to seize power -- insecurity, unemployment, corruption -- can equally be made in the current circumstances.

While Obasanjo's future has become a matter for speculation among political pundits here, instability in the self-styled giant of Africa is cause for concern far beyond its borders.

In West Africa, Nigeria has played the role of regional peacekeeper for more than a decade. In the past two years, the United States has provided training to the country's armed forces as part of a policy of enhancing global security by strengthening regional powers.

Nigeria's stability is also a matter of global concern because of its prominent place among the world's oil suppliers. It was the fifth-largest crude exporter to the United States in 2000, and is American's top African trade partner.

The problems bedeviling Obasanjo are less his doing than the legacy of ruinous military dictatorships. Led predominantly by generals from the mostly Muslim north, the military governments controlled the revenue from Nigeria's oil sector, which provides more than 95 percent of the country's export income, and distributed it among their cronies while poverty, unemployment and crime soared.

Obasanjo was one of those military rulers, but he stood apart from the rest by stepping down for free elections in 1979. Four years later, however, the military took power back and clung to it until 1998. Only the sudden death of Gen. Sani Abacha, who had jailed Obasanjo and scores of critics on trumped-up charges of plotting his fall and had funneled much of the treasury to his foreign bank accounts, brought democratic rule.

Obasanjo emerged from prison and won the 1999 presidential election with the backing of the northern generals and a background that bridged many of Nigeria's ethnic and religious divides. But much of the goodwill that accompanied him into office seems to have disappeared in the absence of dramatic improvements in the fortunes of many of the 120 million Nigerians.

Hobbled by external debt of about $30 billion, the economy remains prostrate. With insecurity and corruption discouraging foreign investment, unemployment continues to grow, and the poverty of the majority remains unrelieved.

Some of Obasanjo's measures have undercut his popularity among the old guard of the military and civilian elite from the north. In addition to seeking to recover an estimated $4 billion stashed abroad by Abacha and his associates, he has given non-Muslims key military appointments that for decades were claimed by Muslims.

The north's Muslim leaders have reacted to the erosion of their power over the past two years by encouraging several states to adopt strict Islamic legal codes. Penalties under the legal system include death for adultery, amputation of limbs for stealing and public flogging for drinking alcohol. In addition to creating a constitutional crisis over fundamental rights, the move has heightened tension between the north and the mainly Christian and animist south.

Though criticizing the application of Islamic law, Obasanjo, a born-again Christian, has refused to act against it. Despite his efforts to avoid provoking a religious conflict, sectarian violence has flared sporadically across the country.

The former general's popular standing isn't helped by the fact that his personality seems best suited to military drills. The morning after the explosions at the Lagos military base, Obasanjo visited the scene to show compassion for the soldiers and their families. But when the distressed crowd urged him to take a closer look, he reacted in anger: Shut up! I don't really need to be here. After all, the governor of the state is here.

Obasanjo's credibility also suffered a major blow after he gave his assent in December to a controversial electoral law. It later emerged that, under presidential pressure, leaders of the legislature inserted clauses meant to exclude new political parties from next year's election and ensure his easy reelection. In the uproar that followed, parliament repealed the law.

Not a few people now think Obasanjo is as much a problem as he inherited, said a Western diplomat, and a lot of it has to do with his style.